Big names define bodybuilding. Physique champions who excel in the sport tend to remain in those positions for years — several Mr. (and Ms.) Olympia champions have established their own multi-year reigns, some lasting as long as a full decade.
But there are always those who fly under the radar. Bodybuilders who never seem to have their ideal day in the sun, or who can’t recapture the lightning they once bottled on stage. Some of the most underrated athletes you’ve never heard of would still drop your jaw to the floor with the enormity and presence of their physiques.
Each of these bodybuilders deserved far more attention and praise than they received. They either helped push the sport forward in their own way, showed the fans something they hadn’t seen before, or were unfairly overlooked by the judges.
The Most Underrated Bodybuilders of All Time
Note: This list of underrated male and female bodybuilders spans the last half-century, but there are certainly other notable athletes whom deserve inclusion here.
Born in Finland in 1955, Ritva Elomaa was the second-ever Ms. Olympia champion (after Rachel McLish). In 1981, Elomaa defeated reigning champion McLish with a physique that was muscular and lean.
Although women’s bodybuilding was not yet embracing the large, muscular physiques of the modern era, Elomaa’s leanness and conditioning that year were far above that of her contemporaries. Her victory could be seen as an early indication that the sport was moving forward in that regard.
Elomaa only competed three more times after her Olympia win, and she never retained her Olympia crown. Her retirement in 1983 was keenly felt. Bodybuilding journalist Bill Dobbins later wrote that Elomaa’s retirement stemmed from her unease with the need to build more muscle and her outside interests (she later became a pop singer and a member of parliament in Finland). (1)
10-time Olympia winner Iris Kyle owned the sport of bodybuilding at the highest level in the 2000s. Her strongest potential contender, many believed, was Heather Armbrust. Beginning her career in 2000 with a win at the North Texas bodybuilding contest, Armbrust’s illustrious — but short-lived — career spanned only nine years.
In 2009, Armbrust finished second at the Ms. Olympia behind Kyle, and it was thought that the subsequent year’s show would be hers for the taking.
However, Armbrust unexpectedly retired right after the 2009 Olympia. Speaking to Muscle Sport Magazine in 2011, Armbrust revealed that a desire to be with family, the difficulty of contest prep, and lingering injuries forced her out of competition early. (2)
Born in Venezuela in 1966, Yaxeni Oriquen-Garcia began her bodybuilding career in 1993 and only finished in 2020 when she returned for that year’s Ms. Olympia. In 2005, she won her sole Ms. Olympia crown when she bested a newly emergent Iris Kyle.
It may seem strange to list an Olympia winner as underrated, but the circumstances of her victory often overshadow her achievements. In 2005, the Ms. Olympia judges attempted to curb the growing muscularity of women bodybuilders with the so-called “20% rule.” In effect, returning competitors were asked to “reduce their muscularity” by 20% from that of years prior.
In the mid-2000s, women’s bodybuilding was rife with criticism that competitors looked too masculine, nearly leading to the elimination of the Ms. Olympia show. However, Oriquen-Garcia took the stage with a physique that was still muscular, but more shapely and feminine than years prior, and she demolished the competition.
She would podium at the Olympia in the years following, but never won the contest outright again — a travesty considering that Oriquen-Garcia brought forward one of the sport’s most symmetrical and well-proportioned female physiques of the 2000s.
Haiti-born Dayana Cadeau was the closest thing women’s bodybuilding had to a Flex Wheeler-esque character in the early 2000s. Like Wheeler, Cadeau was known for having an incredible physique, which, although smaller than some of her contemporaries, was always lean, well-proportioned, and muscular.
For this reason, Cadeau was often presented as an “alternative” athlete for those uncomfortable with the extreme muscularity found within the sport.
Cadeau consistently finished in the top three at the Ms. Olympia, but could never win the thing outright. The abolishment of a lightweight category at the Ms. Olympia further hampered her resume.
Always within touching distance of first place, Cadeau was likened by Bodybuilding.com to Jay Cutler in the mid-2000s — someone who was always striving to win the biggest show of them all, but never had it easy. (3) Nevertheless, she was an inspiration for those competitors who prioritized symmetry and leanness over sheer muscle mass.
While it may seem strange to consider Markus Rühl underrated, note that he never won a Mr. Olympia show — fifth position was his highest finish. Over the course of his decade-ish-long career, Rühl only won two competitions outright.
Regardless, he was a fan favorite for many who were enamored by the freakish displays of hulking muscle he brought to each bodybuilding show he attended. He may have had issues with leanness or proportion, but his feverish muscularity caused him to take over as the premiere “mass monster” of his era.
Rühl’s stunning size, which seemed to grow every year, forced his competitors to push their own limits. More than a side attraction, Rühl was a target to meet — or beat.
Nicknamed “the Black Prince,” Robby Robinson is undeniably one of the most underrated bodybuilders ever. At several points, Robinson was stymied in his career by racial biases and erasure. At Venice Beach in 1975, Robinson was told that “blacks don’t get contracts” in the bodybuilding industry. (4)
Although Robinson did win the over-200-pounds class at the Mr. Olympia in 1977, he did feel slighted by prejudice on the part of the judges. Robinson would voice his gripes to the International Federation of Bodybuilding & Fitness (IFBB), but was met with a suspension from the federation.
He did make a return in the late 1980s to high praise and has become a well-regarded figure in the modern era, but in his prime, Robinson hardly received the credit he deserved.
Standing at just 5’2″ tall, Thierry Pastel was arguably limited as a bodybuilder in large part due to his stature. In bodybuilding, it’s commonly acknowledged that taller performers with larger, more filled-out frames, tend to perform better (all other factors kept equal). Many Mr. Olympia champions range from 5’7″ to 5’9″, both well above Pastel. (5)
Pastel competed between the late 1980s and early 1990s, placing eighth at the Olympia in 1991 as his highest ranking there. Despite not being as tall as his contemporaries, Pastel brought forth an extraordinarily balanced physique that flowed nicely and had some of the best arms in the sport at the time to boot.
Günter Schlierkamp, a former German IFBB bodybuilder, has the distinction of being one of the few men to beat eight-time Mr. Olympia winner Ronnie Coleman in a competition. Schlierkamp was the only man to beat Coleman in his arguable prime and, more than anything, was the reason Coleman radically changed his physique between 2002 and 2003 (when he returned to the stage substantially bulked up).
The shocking victory came in 2002 at the GNC Show of Strength contest, just weeks after Coleman had won the Mr. Olympia. (6) Although, in fairness, many Olympia competitors let their physiques slide somewhat shortly after a big show and aren’t always at their best aesthetically.
Not only was Schlierkamp bigger than Coleman on stage, he was also leaner, appearing almost otherworldly. His victory that night was Schlierkamp’s only prominent win in high-level bodybuilding, but many regard him as a talent that went overlooked.
Tipped to be one of the sport’s next stars when he won the Teen Mr. America in 1970, Casey Viator only competed in three Mr. Olympias — but did finish third behind Chris Dickerson and Frank Zane in 1982. His career suffered from bad luck, as evidenced by a serious accident in the gym in 1973 when he lost a great deal of his pinky finger, as well as liters of blood.
In 1973, Viator was recruited for an in-the-gym experiment involving the newly devised High-Intensity Training. Over the course of 28 days, Viator put on slabs of muscle in a short period of time, or at least that’s how the tale was spun.
Either way, Viator’s contribution to bodybuilding in large part centered around his popularization of pushing in-the-gym intensity as high as it can go.
Paul Dillett is often the subject of fitness memes due to his esoteric physique and photoshoots, but that’s hardly his claim to fame. Dillett won more than a few big contests, such as the Night of Champions show in 1999. In fact, he was regarded in the 1990s as the only athlete that could match — and exceed — Olympia champion Dorian Yates in size. (7)
In 1994, Dillett’s career suffered a near-fatal blow when he froze up on stage at the Arnold Classic as a result of extreme dehydration. At a time when bodybuilding was already under scrutiny for its athletes’ drug usage, the blunder saddled Dillett with baggage he couldn’t shake.
However, his physique deserved a more prestigious reputation than to be reduced down to one night.
Bodybuilder Danny Padilla earned his moniker “the Giant Killer” for challenging competitors much taller than himself. Standing at just 5’2″, but weighing as much as 170 pounds, Padilla made waves in the mid-1970s by winning contests like the Mr. America.
His wins earned Padilla plenty of kudos as he would outmatch veteran physique athletes like Mike Mentzer while being less experienced. In his pro debut, Padilla even finished second behind Robby Robinson, and racked up a fifth-place finish (his best) at the Mr. Olympia in 1981.
However, perceived biases among the judges and an unfair playing field created the belief among fans that Padilla should’ve won the whole thing. Fans in attendance reportedly even booed when Franco Columbu was crowned champion over Padilla. (8)
Aaron Baker was lean, muscular, and symmetrical. His back, in particular, was one of the strongest of his generation in the 1990s and his emphasis on symmetry distinguished him at a time when ruling Mr. Olympia champion Dorian Yates was the embodiment of the “mass monster” archetype.
However, Baker had a misstep early on in his career when he joined up with Vince McMahon’s newfound bodybuilding association, the World Bodybuilding Federation (WBF), which attempted to compete against Joe Weider’s IFBB for a brief period in the early 1990s.
Naturally, Baker was prohibited from competing in the more prestigious IFBB as long as he was a member of the WBF. This cost Baker several prominent appearances that may have raised his stature in the sport.
When the WBF disbanded, Weider did accept some of its athletes (including Baker) back into the fold after they paid a hefty monetary fine. Baker competed in the IFBB for several more years but rarely placed well, which may have been to natural decline or a consequence of his prior engagement with a competing federation.
- Bill Dobbins, ‘11 Female Bodybuilders Who Retired Too Early,’ Muscle & Fitness. Accessed 25 August 2022.
- ‘Heather Armbrust,’ MuscleSport Magazine, 20 December 2011.
- ‘An interview with Dayana Cadeau,’ Bodybuilding.com. Accessed 21 August 2022.
- Kristian Rihm, ‘Interview with Robby Robinson,’ Men’s Health, 15 June, 2021.
- Greg Merritt, ‘What is the Ideal Height for Bodybuilding?’, The Barbell, 5 May 2021.
- Peter McGough, ‘Revisiting Ronnie Coleman’s Shocking Loss to Günter Schlierkamp,’ Muscle & Fitness. Accessed 12 August 2022.
- Hotten, Jon. Muscle: A writer’s trip through a sport with no boundaries. Random House, 2011.
- David Robinson, ‘Danny Padilla’s Road to the 1981 Olympia,’ Bodybuilding.com, 23 September, 2004.
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